Irvine city council members unanimously approved a new study of a botanical garden, with some kind of veterans memorial, in the Great Park after well over a decade of requests from the public.

Tuesday’s vote marks a first step toward one designing one of the park’s defining features. 

The land in question is 125 acres along the park’s northern edge that housed a chunk of former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, which still has hangars, portions of a runway, barracks and an air traffic control tower on it. 

The hangar site was put forward by Councilwoman Tammy Kim, who said after speaking with city staff it was one of the only plausible sites for the garden in the Great Park and the best option in her opinion. 

“(A botanical garden has) been discussed at different points, we’ve had different city managers, different council members, and it’s actually gone nowhere. I’m excited to start finally looking at a location.” 

Councilwoman Tammy Kim

She also pledged that the final park would have a veterans memorial in some form.  

That land was previously one of the top potential sites for a veterans cemetery in Orange County, but interest has since shifted to a location at Gypsum Canyon in Anaheim. 

[Read: Irvine Endorses Veterans Cemetery in Gypsum Canyon, Ending Yearslong Debate]

The costs to get started on the botanical garden are still up in the air, but city staff said the maximum costs for clearing the site for construction are in the $38 million range based on a state study of the site, but are expected to come in much lower than that. 

For now, the city is using money it already had set aside for consulting costs in the Great Park budget to study the issue, and will ask the council before spending any additional funds. 

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The botanical garden’s pitch received nothing but praise from public commenters at the meeting. 

Teena Spindler, president of the nonprofit Great Park Garden Coalition, voiced her support for the project, as well as the Great Park Veterans Committee, which has traditionally opposed any use of the site other than as a veterans cemetery. 

“We wholeheartedly support cleaning up the (hangar) site while preserving the historic elements like the air control tower,” said Harvey Liss, the committee’s executive director. 

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But a dispute over how large the park will be is already on the horizon. 

While the city council previously voted to choose a site that allows at least 75 acres for development, the hangar site is 125 acres of open, undeveloped land. 

When Kim brought up the possibility of the entire site being turned into a botanical garden, Agran pushed back, saying while he supports the development of part of the land as a garden they should leave enough open space for any potential future cemetery. 

“To preempt that entire site at this stage for a 125 acre botanical garden is I think just inappropriate,” Agran said. 

Kim said that this wasn’t determining the total size of the park yet, just approving a study to look at all the land and the city’s potential options. 

“(Residents) want to see action and they want to see action as soon as possible and this is the first step,” Kim said. “It doesn’t mean we’ll be building everything out immediately.” 

The city council’s next discussion on the park is scheduled for February 8, when Agran will present his idea for a veterans memorial at the hangar site. 

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada. 

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